The truth about life is that a picture moves us more than numbers. A single picture of a baby playing with his deceased mother’s shroud will be vividly tattooed into our consciousness. On the other hand, we are William Buttler Yeats’ proverbial horseman casting a cold eye when it comes to hard numbers.
The plight of migrants – the silent workers who build our cities and clean our homes before disappearing into their hovels – has pricked our conscience. While one will have to wait to see the true results of the coronavirus lockdown, one causal tangential has been that the well-heeled have suddenly discovered the plight of India’s mendicants.
The knives have been out for the Ministry of Railways for a while now whether it is the death of 14 individuals sleeping on railway tracks. It has been sharpened after the Railways stated that 80 people have died on Shramik trains.
80 deaths are terrible. That’s 80 dreams taken away.
However, Hegel always said to look at the bigger picture. So, before we sum up 80 deaths as the ineptitude of the regime, it becomes important to measure it against the sheer magnitude of the task that the Railways faced.
According to the figures shared by the Railways, the government has run 3840 trains which have transported over 52 lakh migrants. For the mathematically-challenged ones out there including Sambit Patra, 5.2 million has five zeroes – 5,200,000.
While inhuman conditions in which people are being transported definitely needs to be discussed, 80 deaths would mean that the death rate of workers taking Shramik Trains is just 0.0015%.
There’s an old saying in statistics, which is originally attributed to Nobel Laureate Ronald H Coase, a British economist: “If you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything.”
And that’s what we do in the media, torture data even when we don’t have enough evidence to reach a conclusion.
A country as huge as India will have issues that no one can control. For example, an RTI reply revealed that 3014 commuters died on Mumbai locals in 2017.
According to a release from Mumbai Railways, five passengers died on Jan 3 2020.
In fact, some number cruncher at the Indian Railways will be very disappointed because 2019 was the first year they claimed there were no passenger deaths, even though that claim was contested.
It’s important to note that the aforementioned are deaths from accidents, including those at rail crossings and derailments.
The only data that can be used to gauge the travesty of the Shramik train deaths is the number of people who die on trains of natural causes every day and year.
A more accurate way to appropriate blame for the deaths would be to check the cause of death of each individual, see if suffered from a disease and check the mortality rate. That remains another problem in India, given low reporting of deaths.
Secondly, to blame deaths on the trains is like calling every death post Nov 2016 a ‘demonetization death’ as was wont for a while. It’s a classic causality logical failure, assuming that post-hoc ergo propter hoc.
According to this piece from 2009, India records 34 births and 19 deaths every minute. It adds: “That would mean 2062 birth and 603 deaths every hour, 49,481 births and 14,475 deaths every day and 1.5 million births and .04 million deaths per month.”
This should alone give context to the sheer number of births and deaths that take place every minute in India.
Tinker, Tailor, Statistician, Spinner
A clever tinkerer, depending on what side of the spectrum she lies on, can use the numbers to claim that the lockdown was a stunning success or a grave failure.
Consider road accidents.
In 2018, India recorded 1.5 lakh road accident fatalities. That would roughly come to 12,500 per month. Does that mean that one should consider the lockdown to have ‘saved’ 12,500 lives per month?
One could make matters murkier, pun intended, by throwing in air pollution deaths. In fact, one study pegs air pollution deaths in India to 2.3 million in 2019 which would be 1.9 lakh per month.
How many of these deaths were prevented due to the coronavirus?
Another study claimed that between March 19 and May 2, of the 338 non-coronavirus lockdown deaths, 80 were suicides, 51 were accidents, 45 were withdrawal symptoms and 36 due to starvation.
The lack of deaths actually led Reuters to run a piece on funeral homes failing to make ends meet in April given the drastic drop in death counts, with or without coronavirus.
Lies, damned lies and statistics
Of course, all the aforementioned statistical jugglery is what we saw post-demonetization and Odd-Even Rule in Delhi where random benefits were thrown around to justify and hide the fact that neither measure actually helped. Demonetization didn’t bring back black money, Odd-Even didn’t help lower air population.
Both measures in fact, brought some temporary relief but neither achieves its stated goals.
We will also never truly gauge how many deaths will be caused due to the protracted lockdown and the economic misery that’s set to follow.
One could even argue, without any data to back it up, that the looming economic slowdown has forced the government to take a sledgehammer to the status quo and start reforms that might save more lives than the ones caused due to the lockdown.
The truth is that the coronavirus pandemic has smashed to bits the statistical models of Big Data, showing us that most of our mathematical models are as useful as WHO. One ‘model’ predicted 300 million cases (that’d be one in four Indian).
The real results of the migrant crisis will also be revealed in future elections, the only true way to gauge emotions in this country.
If the masses agree with the op-eds about the current regime mishandling the lockdown, we will witness stunning reversals for the BJP unless Modi 2.0 comes up with some paradigm-shifting miracles.
Just as Modi 1.0 reaped the benefits of stellar work in numerous different sectors including rural India, which saw its voting count increase across groups, Modi 2.0 will pay for the lockdown if the situation is as bad as it’s being made out to be. Numbers can lie, but the mandate never does.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are the author's own.
Nirmalya Dutta is the Web Editor of The Free Press Journal.
With inputs from Swapnil Mishra